Philip Carl Salzman: Why did the Muslim Middle East become so violent?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University. This article is drawn from his forthcoming book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books).]

Today's religious map of the Middle East traces to the unification of the Arabian tribes under the banner of Islam in the 7th century, and their subsequent conquest of much of the known world. Muhammad's genius was in finding a way to unite the myriad of fissiparous, feuding Bedouin tribes of northern Arabia into a cohesive polity. Just as he had provided a constitution of rules under which the people of Medina could live together, so he provided a constitution for all Arabs, but this one had the imprimatur not just of Muhammad, but of God. Submission -- Islam -- to God and His rules, spelled out in the Koran, bound Arabian tribesmen into the community of believers, the umma.

Building on the tribal system of "balanced opposition" -- the subject of yesterday's essay -- Muhammad was able to frame an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. But unification was only possible by creating a tribalized enemy against which Muslims could make common cause. This Muhammad did by opposing Muslims against infidels; and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, against the dar al-harb, the land of infidels and conflict. Through the precepts of Islam, traditional Bedouin raiding was sanctified as an act of religious duty.

With every successful battle against local unbelievers, especially after the critical early battle against the Meccans, more Bedouin joined the umma. Once united, the Bedouin warriors of the umma turned outward, teaching the world the meaning of jihad, holy war. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Arabs, in lightning thrusts, challenged and beat the Byzantines to the north and the Persians to the east, both weakened by their continuous wars with one another, thus imposing their control over the Christian majority in the Levant and the Zoroastrian majority in Persia, and therefore over the entire Middle East. These stunning successes were rapidly followed by conquests of Christian and Jewish populations in Egypt, Libya and North Africa's Maghreb (Arabic for "the West"), and, in the east, central Asia and the Hindu population of northern India. Not content with these triumphs, Arab armies invaded and subdued much of Christian Spain and Portugal, and all of Sicily. Since the Roman Empire, the world had not seen such power and reach. All fell before the Saracen blades.

Most accounts of Islamic history, even that of the Lindholm's esteemed The Islamic Middle East, glide over these conquests, as if they were friendly takeovers. But the truth was very different.

The evidence is overwhelming that vast numbers of infidel male warriors and civilians were slain, and that most of those spared, particularly the women and children, were enslaved for domestic and sexual servitude. While men who willingly converted were spared, their wives and children were taken as slaves. In conquered regions, children were regularly taken from parents, while on the borders -- especially in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa south of the Sahara -- raiding for slaves was normal practice. Of the male slaves, a substantial number were made eunuchs by the removal of sex organs, in order to serve in harems. This account of the Arab campaign in northern India illustrates the usual procedures:

"During the Arab invasion of Sindh (712 CE), Muhammad bin Qasim first attacked Debal…It was garrisoned by 4,000 Kshatriya soldiers and served by 3,000 Brahmans. All males of the age of 17 and upwards were put to the sword and their women and children were enslaved.

"[Seven hundred] beautiful females, who were under the protection of Budh (that is, had taken shelter in the temple), were all captured with their valuable ornaments, and clothes adorned with jewels." Muhammad dispatched one-fifth of the legal spoil to Hajjaj, which included 75 damsels, the other four-fifths were distributed among soldiers."...

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